A Look Back at New England's Best Moments of the 2012 Regular Season

Marc FreshmanContributor IDecember 25, 2012

A Look Back at New England's Best Moments of the 2012 Regular Season

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    The regular season is winding down and the Patriots are headed to the playoffs. Now's the time to catch fire. This is when heroes reveal themselves. This is when champions begin to emerge.

    The Patriots know this terrain well. They've been here before and they know what it takes to win. Now's the time for them to take care of business.

    But before they take care of business, let's reflect on the truly thrilling season we just witnessed. Here are New England's most memorable moments from 2012.

Week 1: Jones and Hightower Deliver the Goods

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    Bill Belichick sent shockwaves through the 2012 NFL draft when he traded up twice in the first round. It was a bold maneuver which bestowed instant "game-changer" status upon a pair of young defensive players who hadn't yet played a game at the professional level.

    When the Patriots headed to Tennessee for their opening game of the season, the curious eyes of the football world were focused on the rookies. Would Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower prove themselves worthy of Belichick's gamble, or would they collapse under the weight of their own hype?

    The answer came at the 11-minute mark of the second quarter.

    Backed up on 3rd-and-13, Jake Locker took the snap and dropped back into his own end zone. Chandler Jones capitalized on his length and speed to circumvent the defense, allowing him to sneak up on Locker's blind side and sack him. The ball popped out and spilled into the field of play. Hightower scooped up the ball and bulldozed into the end zone.

    In one fell swoop, Jones and Hightower had effectively proven their "game-changer" status by dramatically impacting and shaping New England's first game of the season. The Patriots went up 14-3 on that play, eventually rolling to a 34-13 victory.

Week 4: Spikes Lowers the Boom on the Bills

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    When the Patriots traveled to Ralph Wilson Stadium to play the Bills, they were looking to avoid a third loss at all costs. But in the first half, they were beyond ugly. Mental mistakes, turnovers, missed field goals, miscommunication, laziness and general unpreparedness had turned the Patriots into punching bags.

    The Bills were up 14-7 with 1:19 left in the second quarter. Ryan Fitzpatrick was on the verge of sending the Patriots into halftime with a demoralizing mindset. But when he handed it off to C.J. Spiller for a potential rushing score, Brandon Spikes brought the heat and forced a fumble on the goal line.

    The Patriots recovered the ball, effectively stopping the bleeding. Spikes' big play allowed the Patriots to escape into halftime with a workable deficit. It also gave them something to feel good about. 

    In the third quarter, Tom Brady took permanent ownership of the momentum when he ran for a memorable touchdown. He led his team to 45 points in the second half, en route to a 52-28 blowout.

Week 5: Ninkovich Stops McGahee

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    Patriots vs. Broncos held special meaning for a variety of reasons. Not only was it the rebirth of a legendary quarterback rivalry, but it was a test of strength between two legitimate contenders. This would go down as a statement game, with plenty of playoff implications abound.

    Late in the fourth quarter, Peyton Manning was in striking distance of a crucial score that would've cut New England's lead to three points. He handed it off to Willis McGahee, who picked up three yards before getting pummeled by Rob Ninkovich. The ball wound up on the ground. Jermaine Cunningham recovered the fumble, allowing the Patriots to run out the clock.

    Ninkovich's game-winning play, along with his critical sack in third quarter, cemented a crucial statement win and helped define New England's 2012 season.

Week 7: McCourty Strikes Back with a 104-Yard Kickoff Return

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    With 8:51 left in the opening quarter, the Jets were feeling pretty good about themselves. They had just taken a 7-0 lead and their energy was upbeat.

    Then, it all came crashing down.

    Nick Folk kicked the ball to Devin McCourty. 104 yards later, McCourty had the game knotted at seven. McCourty's return touchdown was smooth, furious and explosive. Nobody was close to stopping him.

    The Patriots went on to win, 29-26, due in large part to McCourty's early spark and a late strip-sack from Rob Ninkovich in overtime.

Week 11: Edelman Runs with the Night

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    Colts vs. Patriots was expected to be compelling from the start. Instead, it turned out to be a slow-burning game which didn't reveal its true colors until the 12-minute mark of the second quarter.

    Around that time, with Indianapolis up 14-7, Andrew Luck threw a trio of incomplete passes. On fourth down, Julian Edelman stepped in to receive Pat McAfee's punt.

    Edelman caught the ball and split multiple defenders on his way to the outside. When three defenders caught up with him, he cut to the inside. When more defenders pounced, he weaved his way back to the sideline. From there, it was an old-fashioned race to the finish line.

    Delone Carter was Indianapolis' last hope of stopping the runaway train. When Carter went down, it was over. Edelman skipped into the end zone, completing his electrifying 68-yard return.

    The crowd at Gillette Stadium went nuts. So did the Patriots. The collective energy was so high and so intense, it sparked Aqib Talib's 59-yard pick-six on Indianapolis' next drive.

    The Patriots went on to smash the Colts, 59-24.

Week 12: Patriots Eat the Jets for Thanksgiving Dinner

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    New England's execution on Thanksgiving night was ridiculous. Six different guys had touchdowns. Thirty-five of the team's 49 points came in the second quarter alone. They scored three times in less than a minute. Tom Brady was never intercepted or sacked. It was a perfect thrashing on a perfect holiday evening.

    This qualified as New England's best win of the season because it left a lasting impression of destruction on a major rival. 

    In the weeks that followed, the Jets descended into an abyss of madness and chaos. Mark Sanchez got pulled from a game, a third-string quarterback leapfrogged over Tim Tebow, the Jets missed the playoffs again, Sanchez lost his starting job and speculation of a top-down overhaul became louder than ever.

    The Thanksgiving Day Massacre was the moment when the Patriots pushed a critical domino which led to the end of the Rex Ryan-Mark Sanchez era as we know it.

Week 14: Brady Hears the "MVP" Chants

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    Patriots vs. Texans was expected to be the game of the season. The Texans arrived in their letterman jackets, looking cool, calm and inspired. J.J. Watt looked positively frightening. Patriots fans prepared themselves for an epic battle.

    But it didn't take long for the heavyweight fight of the season to become the heavyweight blowout of the season. 

    Tom Brady played some of his finest football. He threw 296 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. It was the standout performance of the year.

    No play better defined that performance than his epic scramble for the first down as the third quarter ticked away. After making the slide, Brady immediately jumped to his feet, launched his fist forward and let out his signature blood-curdling war cry. The crowd started chanting, "MVP! MVP! MVP!"

    It was a truly amazing moment in a truly amazing performance.

    The Patriots went on to beat the Texans, 42-14.